THE WARLORDS (2007) is an ambitious film directed by Peter Chan, one of Hong Kong's known filmmakers. This film has a very impressive cast in Jet Li (Fearless), Andy Lau (Infernal Affairs) and Takeshi Kaneshiro (Returner). This period epic is loosely based on Chang Cheh's classic; BLOOD BROTHERS. I've seen a lot of Chinese epics and thankfully "The Warlords" is not a part of the colorful, overindulgent film geared towards U.S. audiences. Truly, this film is darker and grittier than most Chinese epics, but still has massive commercial appeal and will no doubt be popular to international audiences.
The Taiping Rebellion has plunged the country in chaos. General Quing-yun Pang (Jet Li) is the lone survivor of a massive battle between the Christian Taiping and the Qing dynasty under command. That evening, he finds comfort in the arms of comely Lian (Xu Jinglei) but she disappears the following day. Pang encounters a group of bandits led by Er-hu Zhao (Andy Lau) and Jiang (Kaneshiro) who are having difficulty in survival. As fate would have it, the three takes a blood oath to join the Qing army to quell the rebellion.
The Taiping rebellion is among the bloodiest civil war ever recorded in history. The body count rivals the ones during World War II. The Taiping rebellion has a lot to do with religion and cultural ideology, and those powerful issues have been downplayed in favor of the theme of brotherhood, love and war. The film fails to take advantage of its historical context. Quite disappointing really, apparently, the producers presume that the usual theme of brotherhood and loyalty are more universal and more appealing to international audiences. I looked up the details of the Taiping rebellion, and I have to say, even though "The Warlords" is in no means a bad film, it's full potential hasn't been achieved. Rather, the rebellion is only used as a backdrop and not really the film's main premise.
As for the battle scenes, it may well be the bloodiest I've seen so far in Hong Kong cinema. Limbs are severed and there are a few gruesome beheadings. The sequences still have the martial arts influence, but no hints of wires are shown. U.S. audiences may need hints of Chinese history to be able to fully grasp the proceedings, there's a lot of commentary to China's tumultuous past and there is some effective human drama in the brothers' contrasting ideas regarding war and righteousness. Pang is a realist while Er-hu is an idealist, I'm pretty certain you have an idea how two opposing ideologies cannot coexist. Sadly, the missing cultural impact of the war minimizes the film's depth, making the horrors of war less involving.
Jet Li gives the performance of his career since "Fearless". The man can indeed act, and now I understand why he wants to leave the shadow of Wu Shu. There is quite a lot of "manly" tear-jerking moments, and the existing love triangle between Pang, Er-hu and Lian seems to be minor plot devices in an attempt to relate to its audiences. The film is successful as a costume epic, and definitely has a lot of ambition. The style feels a little bit like a Hollywood production; expensive, huge and indeed loud. There are some emotional complexities inherent in its characters and conflicts but it becomes a little too predictable. The film is indeed large but somewhat hampered by its commercialism. Big name Asian stars, expensive production values (I heard that it surpassed "Curse of the Golden Flower" in dollar expense), drama and a China-friendly aversion to sensitive themes.
Now, this doesn't mean that "The Warlords" is a bad film, it is actually a VERY good one. The elaborate costumes, decent battle sequences, awesome set designs and the excellent performance by my boy; Jet Li does make the film a real note-worthy experience. It is just both a success and a victim of its own commercialism. For the most part, Peter Chan and company knew what they wanted to do with this film; a film that can please almost everyone (except maybe those who love happy endings) and has mass mainstream appeal for both Chinese and international audiences. The film's historical trappings feel more like a setting rather than a sense of history. Still, a lot of viewers will not be disappointed, the film is not subtle in execution, the melodramatic battlefields and the great performances by its actors are sure to please many. It may be a bit hollow in spirit but definitely solid and safe in the power it exudes.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! [4 stars]
NOTE: The U.S. release (region 1) of "The Warlords" has lost more than 15 minutes of original footage when compared to the Hong Kong release. It loses a lot of its emotions and dramatic impact. If you have multi-region capability, get the uncut Asian release.